Many Asians have crossed the Pacific to the NBA. Most of them are from China, headed by the immortal Yao Ming. China has been the Asian power to beat in the past two decades. They have a plethora of young big men that they can develop. With the lack of big men in the NBA, it won’t be long before the next Chinese beanpole descends on NBA shores. In the meantime, another Asian power has emerged. This time from the Middle East, Iran has beaten China in some international competitions. With tutelage from European and American coaches, Iran, whose players’ heights can rival China, learned the game quickly.
Arsalan Kazemi hopes to join national teammate Hamed Haddadi in making the jump to the NBA. He is known as an unselfsh player and fierce rebounder.
All season,Oregon coach Dana Altmanhas been pleading withArsalan Kazemi to be more aggressive, more selfish — to shoot more.
For years, Afef Ibrahim has been urging Kazemi to do the same. A self-described sharp-shooter, the 12-year-old more than once has offered, teasingly, to give Kazemi shooting tips.
“He never shoots,” Afef says, clearly annoyed. “He just does dunks and layups. He’ll be wide open for a 16-footer and he doesn’t shoot the shot.”
The young Oregon fan is sitting in an armchair in the lobby of the Fairmont San Jose early Friday afternoon, decked out in Ducks gear. His father, Anthony Ibrahim, is sitting to his left, talking on his iPhone. Across from Afef sits a friend twice his size, USC’s 7-foot-2 center, Omar Oraby, who is obsessively checking his iPhone.
Kazemi had said goodbye, exchanging hugs and handshakes, to his adopted U.S.-based family a few minutes earlier, then rejoined his Oregon teammates as they headed for a practice.
A day earlier, in the Ducks’ surprising 68-55 victory over Oklahoma State in theirNCAA Tournament opener, the 6-foot-7 Kazemi had set an Oregon tournament record with 17 rebounds, plus 11 points, to continue his breakthrough season under a bigger, brighter spotlight. Back at the Fairmont that night, Anthony Ibrahim had told Kazemi that he could have had 20-20 if he’d been a little more aggressive.
Inside the Oregon locker room at HP Pavilion later Friday afternoon, Kazemi shrugs off the “aggressive” suggestion. He’s heard this before.
“I just try to help this team,” Kazemi says, looking ahead to the Ducks’ third-round game against Saint Louis on Saturday. “Right now is not the time for me to show people what I can do. This is a bigger stage, but I’m just trying to help my team win. That’s all I care about right now.”
Every year, Kazemi has gotten “very tempting” offers to play professionally overseas, Ibrahim said.
Altman and the Ducks are glad he didn’t accept them. After 45 career double-doubles at Rice, Kazemi has been one of the Ducks’ most valuable players this season, helping Oregon rank as the No. 1 rebounding team in the Pac-12 Conference.
His average of 9.8 rebounds per game is the most in a single season at Oregon since Greg Ballard (10.4) in 1975-76. Counting his three-year total at Rice, Kazemi has 1,279 rebounds in his career — more than Ballard’s school-record of 1,114.
“He’s meant a great deal to our program. There’s no doubt about that,” Altman said. “His performance (Thursday) was really impressive. When he hasn’t played well, we’ve struggled.”
Kazemi, who averages 9.3 points while shooting a Pac-12-best 59.2 percent from the field, gets most of his offense off of putbacks or layups. An all-Pac-12 defensive team selection, Kazemi also averages 2.1 steals, the third-most in the Pac-12, and Altman has said Kazemi is the best big man he’s ever coached at “hedging” an opposing point guard on a pick-and-roll.
Kazemi’s quiet, humble nature — reflected in his selfless, no-you-shoot-it nature on the court — has made him a popular figure in the UO locker room.
“He’s a wonderful young man to coach, really unselfish, all about the team, very respectful of others, very bright,” Altman said. “It’s really been easy to work with him this year.”
Oregon’s NCAA opener against Oklahoma State didn’t start until about 1 a.m. back in Kazemi’s hometown of Esfahan, Iran. That didn’t matter to Roya Kazemi, who watches her son’s games through an Internet feed however and whenever she can.
“She doesn’t care how early or late it is,” Kazemi said. “She supports me all the time.”
Support back in Iran has picked up, too. The NBA is more popular back home, but Kazemi said college basketball — and the Ducks — are gaining traction.
“He’s a pioneer for his country,” Ibrahim said, “so he’s got to represent.”
Kazemi parents, including his father, Yousef — who owns a factory that makes the popular “gaz” candy — have not been able to see him play college basketball in person.
“They want to come here, but it’s kind of hard with all the (international) sanctions that are happening (against Iran) and our money kind of dropped really bad (with) the currency,” Kazemi said.
He talks to his parents twice a day — and sometimes three times on a game day — but only sees them once a year, for about a week, when he returns to Esfahan each summer. Much of his time back in Iran each summer is spent with the senior national team.
“This is the sacrifice we’ve made,” he said, “and hopefully it pays off in the end.”
The end goal was always a shot at the NBA.